Under President Jenny Bilfield, Washington Performing Arts has expanded the range of its offerings, reaching in many directions outside the classical canon that was its bread and butter for so many decades. And even in strictly “classical” programs, we enter less-familiar territory more and more often. Does it always “work”? Depends how one defines the word. Last evening’s concert in the Kennedy Center, “Transfigured Nights,” featured music by Beethoven and Shostakovich among others, given by four celebrated solo artists who have each played to full houses down in the Concert Hall, either with the National Symphony or some visiting orchestra; yet there were empty seats in the intimate Terrace Theater.
For the principal offering, violinist Sergey Khachatryan, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, pianist Inon Barnatan, and percussionist Colin Currie were joined by percussionists Douglas Perkins and Michael Werner in a peculiar arrangement of a peculiar symphony; Victor Derevianko’s setting of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15, the piano trio trying to cover all of the instrumental parts. I’m not sure what to make of it. There is a centuries-long tradition of boiling down orchestral works to small forces (usually four-hand piano arrangements) so that music-lovers can experience them at home. Here, the vast array of percussion filling the stage, plus celeste, with a piano trio, makes the effort hardly seem worth the candle. No home could accommodate all of this, nor could even good professionals handle the ridiculously-overloaded string parts, which taxed the two virtuosos last night to their detriment.
The program felt like committee legislation; possibly good intentions distorted by conflicting imperatives. Since an artist of Currie’s stature would not likely travel to the US simply to be one of three orchestral percussionists, he was given a full solo turn of his own here; Realismos mágicos for marimba, by Rolf Wallin. The piece, 11 brief meditations on titles of Márquez short stories, was a mish-mash of expressionist minimalism, and bore no relation to what came before or after (other than a very general theme of spookiness). Currie is indeed a remarkable player, though his mallets seemed to miss their targets now and then.
On the first half, Khachatryan, Weilerstein, and Barnatan offered Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio and the Eduard Steuermann arrangement of Schoenberg’s masterwork Verklärte Nacht (more spookiness). Khachatryan is something of an enigma himself; a near-perfect bow arm and a preternatural facility on the instrument, yet a sound that gets shrill at high volume. Weilerstein is an unconventional player as well, but she listens intently to everything going on around her, and seems to be the group’s anchor. While the strings weren’t always perfectly in tune with one another, the playing was always alive and searching.
The Schoenberg/Steuermann is interesting. The piano cleans up many of the low-register harmonies that always come out as mud in the orchestra or sextet versions; but why is the violin part almost untouched from the original whereas the cello plays perhaps 10% of what Schoenberg originally wrote for it? This imbalance is disorienting for those of us who know the piece, and other than to shoehorn it into the “spookiness” theme of the evening, I would’ve preferred to hear these world-class artists offer another original trio.
WPA is D.C.’s premiere music presenter, setting the tone for the whole area. Next season’s WPA programs look similarly adventurous; I just hope they turn out to have a little more internal cohesion than this one.
(Final comment, for those who might’ve read my past couple of reviews: in the Shostakovich, the piano lid had to be lowered so that the six musicians could see one another. All of a sudden, the balance problems within the trio vanished, every note of the cello becoming audible.)